Oct 31, 2006

Best Novel Lists and Winters's Three Great Novelists

There was a bit of fanfare in the New York Times for A.O. Scott’s article about the Best Book of the Past 25 years (best novel, that is), which appeared over the summer in the Times (search on google for the article if you wish to see it all). Though Winters was much decried among the “High-Cult” critics of his day for having stubbornly insisted on the practice of ranking and rating poems -– and, worse, for setting out what appeared to be a new canon of poetry -- the ranking and rating of books, and the making of best-of lists of literature, has become a widespread practice in American literary culture, as least in the “Mid-Cult” publications (to use the terms Dwight Macdonald proposed a couple decades ago in a famous and highly useful essay on “levels” of artistic enculturation).

Scott points out in his article that there has long been a desire in American literary culture to identify the one greatest novel, the single magnificent work that gathers in or sums up or rises above all other novels, that achieves a status similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Did this desire to isolate and coronate the “Great American Novel” play some kind of role in Winters’s thinking as he strove throughout his career to discover and champion the very best works of literature, that is, those very few works he wished to designate as “great”? That is worth pondering. I think it might have.

Here’s a long, interesting passage from the Scott article:

It is perhaps this babble and ruckus -- the polite word is diversity… the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We -- Americans, writers, American writers -- seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy -- even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books.

To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply -- or not really -- to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here [in the Times poll]. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject. They are -- the top five, in any case, in ascending order -–

American Pastoral, Philip Roth, with 7 votes
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 8 votes and
Updike's four-in-one Rabbit Angstrom, 8 votes
Don DeLillo's Underworld, 11 votes
Toni Morrison's Beloved, 15 votes

The list of voters obviously was small (the Mid-Cult elite?), and they were all from that guild Macdonald would have called “Mid-Cult” (though some of these writers and critics surely aspire to being considered part of “High-Cult” or believe that they already are in or close to it). I think this list of “great” novels is worth thinking about for Wintersians. Not a one of those top-five novels (considering the 4 Rabbit novels as one) achieves “greatness” in my judgment, in what I understand to be Yvor Winters’s sense of the term: a work of such distinction and near artistic perfection that it can serve as a model by which to judge all other works of narrative literature. It would be interesting to hear what Wintersians think of these novels and what they would propose as their own greats in fiction from the last 25 years, if any -- or greats of all time in American literature, for that matter. Choosing the great novels, in Winters’s sense of “great”, is a worthy project for the near future, a much-needed way to build upon Yvor Winters’s critical work, now that he has been gone for so long (he died in January, 1968).

The Times’ list of recent eminent novels calls to mind Winters’s relatively unknown judgment of the greatest novelists, a subject which he had little to say about in his published criticism. Turner Cassity, poet, professor and one-time Winters student at Stanford, reported briefly on Winters’s judgment of the greats of narrative literature in his reminiscence of Winters published in the excellent 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford. Cassity recalled that Winters told a student, who had asked him who he thought are the “great” novelists, that Cervantes, Melville, and Proust are the three greatest novelists. Does anything listed in the Times top-five come close to the finest work of these three?

Note, however -- in contrast to Winters’s commonly bewilderingly eccentric evaluations of individual poems and poets (which garnered him so much scorn in literary culture) -- that there is nothing the least peculiar in the choice of those three writers. They all now rank high in the Standard Canon, though Melville was not highly regarded until about 70 years after Moby Dick was published and Proust is a modern who started high and has been on the rise for the past 50 years. Cervantes’s Don Quixote recently made the very top spot, Number 1, in a list of the greatest literary works of the millennium (I can’t recall off hand where that was published or who was involved in the selection). Melville inspires practically a churning literary industry of his own in the US, though Britain and Europe are beginning to catch Melville fever, too. And Proust is generally regarded, alongside only Joyce, as the world’s greatest novelist of modern times, with dozens of books being written about his seven-part A la recherche every year.

There’s something a little disappointing in Winters’s judgment of the great novelists for me. Isn’t one of the chief joys of reading Winters the making of discoveries? Who can forget, if one is a Wintersian, those great lost works Winters guided us to, such as to that first reading of Ben Jonson’s long neglected “To Heaven”; or to Herbert’s astonishing and mostly forgotten “Church Monuments”; or to the haunting power of Stevens’s late poem “The Course of a Particular”; or the depth and brilliance of Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which was almost wholly lost to oblivion? All those great, truly great poems that the keepers of the Standard Canon entirely missed! That was one of the great joys of first reading Winters, those moments of discovery that came like bolts of illumination from some other realm, some higher plane that Winters alone seemed able to reach and traverse.

But there is little to be discovered in the threesome Winters chose as the greatest in narrative literature (though Winters did make a couple of stunning discoveries in prose literature, a subject which I will come back to in the near future in this blog). Winters, apparently (judging from how Cassity tells the story), was sure that there was something daring or extraordinary in his choice of these three greats, for he added to the student, according to Cassity, “And what do you think of THAT!” Well, nowadays, there is little in his judgment that is surprising at all.

As I say, the work of Winters in redefining the canon according to the principles of Reason should continue in the area of narrative literature. I would be pleased to see this blog begin that work. To what bolt-of-lightning discoveries can the Wintersians lead each other? I wait and hope.

Oct 25, 2006

Hart Crane and Connotation

Hilton Als, in his New Yorker review of the new edition of Hart Crane’s poems for the Library of America, quotes a famed passages in the history of English literary theory. The general ideas expressed in the quote that follows, ideas not original with Hart Crane, certainly, but which found a passionate champion in him, have now covered the literary culture as the waters cover the sea:

[A reply to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe] has become a key document of poetic modernism. Crane admitted that he was “more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness... than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations.” What Monroe saw as nonsense Crane insisted was a higher kind of sense. He wrote, “The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority.”
Do you not hear a lot of Mallarme in those words from Crane, as well as Winters’s incisive and valuable discussion of Mallarme in Primitivism and Decadence? (I should note in passing that Mallarme’s poetry has enjoyed a resurgence of interest of late as well. Search on google on Mallarme and you will find plenty of new commentary on his work. One article that was particularly insightful, from a couple years ago, was John Simon’s review in The New Criterion of a new edition of Mallarme’s poems. I think that’s still available on line.)

As a Wintersian, how might one reply to Crane? Here is how I would: A poet has the “right” to do anything he damn well pleases. A poet can write gibberish in dog doo for all poetry has to do with any concept of “rights.” A poet, too, can take as many liberties as he likes, throw away all conventions, abandon all principles; he has the “authority” to write in any way he might please. But though the poet can write as he pleases, the reader or the critic, especially the Wintersian, is not bound to approve or sanction, canonize or even publish, anything a poet writes with an intense emphasis on connotation.

As I have already written in this blog, I fail to understand what the hubbub about Hart Crane’s poetry is about. In fact, I fail to find this fascination in literary culture with loosey-goosey connotation to be mostly tiresome. Crane has a way of writing with great verve and breathless excitement and –- what shall I call it? -- mythic exuberance. But what he has to say, in my judgment, amounts to a thimble-full of understanding in a two-inch-deep puddle of emotions. For the furious emotions Crane expresses and evokes in his poetry, through his overemphasis on connotation, for me always immediately lose almost all their force when I lift my eyes from the page. The reason is that they are almost entirely unmoored to any motivating concepts, any experiences outside the fizzing of his own brain cells. He often writes like a madman, feeling emotions that are wildly out of proportion to anything that’s really going on around him -- in a way that seems similar to some forms of mentally illness. Reading Crane is much like trying to find one’s way in a forest by the intermittent light of fireworks going off in the sky above (to reuse a wonderful analogy of Dick Davis’s from a 2003 Wintersian essay in The New Criterion).

The Crane quote brought to mind Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, a book which seems to have influenced Yvor Winters quite deeply, especially early in his career. In reading Crane’s declaration again, I thought of a small passage from the chapter “Romantic Irony” that has always stuck with me:
The romanticist is constantly yielding to the “spell” of this or the “lure” of that, of the “call” of some other thing. But when the wonder and strangeness that he is chasing are overtaken, they at once cease to be wondrous and strange, while the gleam is already dancing over some other object on the distant horizon. For nothing is in itself romantic, it is only imagining that makes it so. Romanticism is the pursuit of the element of illusion in things for its own sake; it is in short the cherishing of glamour. The word glamour introduced into literary usage from popular Scotch usage by Walter Scott itself illustrates this tendency. Traced etymologically, it turns out to be the same word as grammar. In an illiterate age, to know how to write at all; was a weird and magical accomplishment, but in an educated age, nothing is so directly unromantic, so lacking glamour, as grammar.
For Crane, as for so many writers in modern times, the disciplines of Reason lost their gleam, their romantic allure.

But as always, I would be happy to hear from others on Crane’s work in light of Winters’s discussions of it.

Oct 19, 2006

New Edition of Hart Crane's Poetry

A Library of America edition of the poetry (and letters) of Hart Crane was released recently, an event which has given rise to a number of reviews and essays about Crane in major American magazines and journals. Some of these essays have mentioned Yvor Winters, in regard to perhaps the most famous role he has played in American literary history so far: his friendship with Hart Crane. The New Yorker review of the new edition of the poems, by Hilton Als, is well worth reading and mentions Winters several times, and without rancor or condemnation (thankfully!). Als offers some valuable insights into the poetry of Crane. The essay can be found at:


Here’s a few quotations from Als’s review, with some comments from me:
The interpretation of Crane’s life as a dire fable of the age has shaped his reputation ever since. Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, two of his best friends and two of the best critics of modern American poetry [Comment: there’s a wonderful endorsement of Winters coming from the finest and most important magazine in US literary culture], saw his story primarily as a warning. For Winters, he was a noble spirit destroyed by false principles, “a saint of the wrong religion”; for Tate, his poetry had “incalculable moral value,” but mainly because “it reveals our defects in their extremity.”
Comment: I have trouble seeing the incalculable moral value of Crane’s poetry, though I do see that he could turn a string of magnificent phrases at times. Indeed, I see little moral value in his work at all. To be honest, I consider his poetry of little value in any area of life, though it does have its incidental pleasures, the grandiloquent mythical effusiveness of it. But I cannot think of one Crane poem that has given me any deep insight into any significant human experience, not even the love poem Winters praised so highly as Crane’s finest work, “Voyages II.” Further, I’ve never read a commentary on Crane’s poetry, including Als’s smattering of comments on the importance of Crane’s work, that gave me any clear indication of what readers find to be so valuable in Crane. I’d be interested in the opinions of my readers on what they find significant in Crane’s poetry.
At last, however, Crane has been given a place, the most unassailable one in American letters: a volume of his own in the Library of America. Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Hammer, can be seen as a conclusion to the long debate over Crane’s stature. Still, the question of what Hart Crane “stands for” in American literature is difficult to answer. His work resists the complacency of canonization, blazing with qualities that are the opposite of classical: precocity, obscurity, and verbal recklessness.
Comment: I have read a study of Crane, in contrast to this last claim of Als’s, that argues that Crane’s work stands in the classical tradition, a modern flowering of English Renaissance verse, principally Shakespearean verse. I think, however, that the last three nouns in that passage accurately summarize the character of Crane’s poetry and are the reason I do not rate it highly and do not get much from reading it. I notice that John Fraser chose a couple Crane poems for his New Book of Verse, a matter I shall return to some time later as I continue to evaluate Fraser’s choices for that highly important anthology. Winters certainly praised a couple of Crane’s poems in the loftiest language, even to the degree of calling “Voyages II” nearly perfect. I will need to come back to that matter, I think. After years pondering the matter, I do not think Crane’s work deserves praise anywhere near so high.
Many twentieth-century poets were heavy drinkers, but Crane was almost unique in preferring to write while he was actually drunk.
Comment: This has become a commonplace of Crane biographers, to go into details about his alcoholism and his personal difficulties, particularly with his parents. I wonder how much more booze -- and his psychological defects and social troubles, particularly with the apparent homophobia he faced -- had to do with his suicide than his Whitmanian beliefs about the value of intuition or impulse, which Winters so forcefully argued was the principal cause of his suicide (the argument is found in “The Significance of the Bridge, or What Are We to Think of Professor X” from In Defense of Reason). I tend to think, after much reflection on the matter, that Crane was probably driven to suicide, in significant part, by demon rum and the incidental cruelties of homophobia, rather than his hyper-Romanticism. Does this invalidate Winters’s argument? That’s something to ponder. I think it likely that Winters’s case is not as strong as it once seemed to me.

I believe I will have more to offer on Als’s essay.

Oct 17, 2006

More on Dickinson’s Spider

After thinking about the Emily Dickinson poem I quoted in my last blog entry, I came to the conclusion that though it is not a great poem, it is at the least not marred by Dickinson’s worst mannerisms, as Winters discussed at length in his essay on her in Maule’s Curse (In Defense of Reason). This poem employs a steady diction and a cool, sharp style that is close to her best work in her great poems. Thinking about these things brought to mind Dick Davis’s recent essay “Poetry, A Prognosis” from a 2003 number of The New Criterion:

I think it’s a fair bet that if you asked most people on this side of the Atlantic who claim to enjoy reading poetry who their favorite pre-twentieth-century English language poets are, they’d say “Donne and Emily Dickinson”: on the other side of the Atlantic the odds are they’d say “Donne and Hopkins.” Much as I like a lot of the verse of Donne, and a fair amount of Dickinson, and even a bit (a very little bit) of Hopkins, I think this indicates where the trouble with modern poetry lies. All three are eccentrics: their poems are hard to comprehend and seem to stand in need of explication, though their habitually excited tone makes even the uninitiated feel that some kind of genuine feeling must be there, even if we can’t quite paraphrase it; and their technique is to some extent both experimental and sui generis. They’re odd-balls, whose verses can be hard to paraphrase...
Does this seem true, too true, David's points about the attractiveness of eccentrics, to those who can be called Wintersians? (Judging from my casual surveys of literary culture over the past 25 years, the diversity of opinion in the world of poetry [and every area of human endeavor] is so astonishing that I don’t think there is any generalization one could make about people who like poetry. People “who claim to enjoy reading poetry” appear to come in every imaginable variety.) Davis has written some trenchant pieces studying what is happening in and to contemporary poetry. As Winters noticed so long ago (concerning a poet even as traditional as George Herbert), it is the eccentricities of poets that grab the attention of so many poets and readers of poetry. As part of the ascendancy of Romanticism across our literary culture, the writing and reading of poetry have become the pursuit of almost pure individuality, as shown, for example, in many poetry blogs on blogger.

How much does Dickinson’s little ditty on the spider exhibit the repeated eccentricities of her verse that remain in nearly unquestionable favor in our dominant literary culture? I think it winks at them, but it keeps its distance. Nonetheless, this poem is more obscure than it should be because, it appears, she chose not to say exactly what she means and adjust her tone properly to whatever it was she wished to say. Her once-unusual habit of playfully obfuscating her meaning has long become a common and highly praised practice of modern poetry, a matter which Winters discussed extensively in Primitivism and Decadence back in 1937.

Oct 13, 2006

Spider Webs and Winters

I was cruising among the poems of Emily Dickinson recently when I came across one that could aptly describe the literary world’s treatment of Yvor Winters. The poem is from the Collected Poems, as published in 1924 (an edition that Winters strongly supported, by the way -- he hated all those dashes used in another popular edition that can be found everywhere). The poem comes from “Part Two: Nature”:


The spider as an artist
Has never been employed
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified

By every broom and Bridget
Throughout a Christian land.
Neglected son of genius,
I take thee by the hand.

Surely, as always in this wide world of boundless opinion and endless disagreement, there are many who would contest that the spider’s artistic merit is freely certified, if I understand Dickinson aright -- that is, that the beauty of a spider web is obvious to anyone and everyone. Putting aside that nettlesome question, I think the poem describes acutely what I and some few others have done with Winters, an artist and thinker of obvious and neglected genius who long ago was swept from just about every wall by brooms throughout the land. Still, two new and very fine editions of selected Winters poems have come out just in the past three years, R.L. Barth’s and the late Thom Gunn’s. How many readers have “employed” them? I wonder. That might be too discouraging to take the trouble to find out.

But let me change the subject a bit. Because I am not especially well studied in Dickinson, I can only speculate that this poem hints that it is concerned with the problem of evil. It might be that it is almost impossible nowadays for someone reasonably well educated to read this poem without thinking of Robert Frost’s later and much more famous spider poem, which directly concerns the problem of natural evil. Was Dickinson being ironic in this poem, pointing out the beauty of webs that are used to kill? In light of her many other poems on death and evil and the woes of human life, and in light of that reference to a “Christian land,” I can only conjecture. If this irony exists, then how should the final line be construed? That she embraces or accepts and allies herself with death, or evil, in some fashion? Is this comparable to Winters’s brand of stoicism?

Oct 11, 2006

John Carey's "What Good Are the Arts?"

Debate has been whirling in cyberspace about a recent book by the reportedly well-known British critic and Oxford don John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? The New Criterion recently published Anthony Daniels’s review of the book,

(found at http://www.newcriterion.com/archives/25/10/higher-destruction),

which finds itself jumbled in an already large pile of reviews on the web. Search on google on the book’s title and author and you’ll find plenty more reflection on Carey’s book. I have skimmed it myself and a number of the reviews besides the New Criterion review. The book contains discussions of critical matters that are of importance to Wintersians, since Carey is out to debunk every attempt at a definition of art and all ways of evaluating art. The first half of the book does the debunking, though the second half, quite strangely and inconsistently, abruptly offers up a peaen to literature.

Carey conducts his snide attack on all answers to the question raised in his title with a consideration of a number of sub-questions: What Is a Work of Art? Is High Art Superior? Can Science Help? Do the Arts Make Us Better? Can Art Be a Religion? Summarizing, he answers thus (with cantankerous bravado -- and elegance and wit, too):

1. Anything (yes, ANYTHING!) can be a work of art.
2. No, science doesn’t help (despite the efforts of recent critics to work up a evolutionary theory of art).
3. High art is not superior by any measure to low art.
4. Arts do not make us better, except in some minor, restricted conditions.
5. Art cannot be a religion.

One might wonder how this author can rationally and consistently answer questions 2-5 after having so answered question 1, since he mindlessly pitches away any means by which to argue about evaluating art, assessing its effectiveness, or studying its spiritual meanings when he denies to art -- and any particular art or work of art -- any definition, purpose, or meaning (or, as Winters would say, any final cause). Does the answer to question 1 make the rest of this book futile? Nearly, perhaps.

It’s probably not very difficult for anyone acquainted with the critical work of Yvor Winters to imagine what his take on Carey’s answers to these questions most probably would be. Carey’s answer to question 1 would, in my view, unquestionably befuddle and perhaps enrage Winters. Carey’s problem, it seems to me, remains the same as the problem R.S. Crane and Cleanthe Brooks faced in their criticism, as Winters discussed so eruditely in “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (republished in The Function of Criticism) 50 years ago. Carey’s incomprehension of what art is arises from his refusal or inability to define art’s final cause. Here’s how Winters puts it about Brooks and Crane:

If we are to have any kind of critical guidance, we shall have to have some kind of critical method or methods that are really applicable to the business in hand. If we are to have any kind of critical method, we shall have to understand two topics with more or less clarity: the potentialities of different kinds of subject matter and the potentialities of various literary forms. Any understanding of these topics, in turn, will depend upon our view of the purpose, or final cause, of literature. In general, our critics have been afraid to commit themselves to any theory of a final cause, or if they suggest one have been afraid to state it clearly and to endeavor to implement it, and thus have been crippled from the start.
Similarly, Carey unwittingly cripples himself from the start. How can he offer us any theoretical insight into art or the art of literature when he cannot see that any study of art or any specific art begins with a definition of its final cause?

(This problem, by the way, appears also to trouble John Fraser, though no doubt less deeply, in his nebulous and elusive attempt to say in his Introduction to his New Book of Verse what he’s up to with the selection of poems for that anthology. Even a critic as well read in Yvor Winters as Fraser appears to have been unable to bring himself to say just what he conceives the final cause of poetry to be, a conception which would enable us to better evaluate the important anthology he has published.)

In part two, Carey blithely tosses aside everything he has said in part one, almost as though the second part was written at some other time and he wholly forgot what he said in the first part. The work of debunking evaporating like a thin mist on a sunny morning, in part two Carey makes a modest case for the advantages of literature over the other arts, implying that one of the arts, at least, is good for something.

Perhaps we shall have occasion to discuss Carey more specifically again in this blog, if it seems to me that he has something to add to our ruminations on Winters’s thought. In the meantime, I think the book is worth looking into, if only to follow yet one more literary thinker to the dead end that much of postmodern criticism has reached, even at Oxford.

Oct 4, 2006

Fraser’s New Book of Verse and “Personal Selections”

I’ve been studying John Fraser’s New Book of Verse closely for the past few weeks (and, to repeat, will be commenting upon it from time to time in the months to come). Lately, I’ve been looking at one remark that I find to be contrary to my understanding of Yvor Winters’s purposes in publishing Quest for Reality, the anthology of the greatest poems in English that Ken Fields finished off in 1968. In this post, I’m going to focus on one sentence from Fraser’s lengthy introduction to his new online anthology and compare its ideas to Winters’s. Fraser writes:

…no single term (remarkable, interesting, great, distinguished, perfect, important, excellent, estimable, best) could in fact have covered the highly personal result [in which poems were selected for Winters’s anthology] or been helped by the addition of the qualifying phrase “some of the.”

Now, Fraser, often in this long introduction, I’ve noticed, is very careful not to say exactly what he means. He uses vague and roundabout phrasing that partially masks his meaning, and this quotation is another case of his odd and sometimes annoying circumlocutions. The first part of this sentence appears to mean that no generic term of high or highest praise can apply to the selection of poems Winters made for Quest (not even the rather tepid adjective “interesting” can be applied to them, in Fraser’s view, it appears). If that is what Fraser means, I wholly disagree. I believe it is quite clear, agree or disagree with the picks, that Winters selected most of the poems of Quest because he considered them “great” -- in his sense of the term, a sense that he hoped literary culture would adopt as its norm. (Exactly what the term “great” meant to Winters and whether any of us can or should agree to his definition, as well as whether we should agree to his judgments on which poems best match his definition, are matters we can discuss at length in this blog. I cover such issues in several entries of my book A Year with Yvor Winters http://www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/ywywint.htm).

In other earlier essays, Winters wrote something to the effect that many of very greatest poems that were to be chosen for Quest are “nearly perfect” or “as perfect as can be imagined.” A small percentage of the poems (10-15% perhaps) found their way into the anthology because Wnters considered them, though not great, supremely excellent and deserving of much more attention from poets and critics for one reason or another. This means to me that Fraser’s suggested terms of praise, “estimable,” “excellent,” and “important,” could all be applied to these very good poems that are slightly less than “great.”

To consider other possible meanings Fraser might have had for the first part of the quoted comment, we might think that the comment applies to himself, and if it does, then Fraser is welcome to his opinion that none of these words of praise can be applied to the poems of Quest. I disagree with his judgment, but if this is his opinion, I’m glad to know it. Another option is that we might construe that first clause to be speaking of us -- all readers, writers, and critics, as a consensus. But if this is what Fraser means, I must state my disagreement that such a consensus exists and that I belong to it. For I side with Winters against this implied consensus, if such Fraser intended to imply, that the poems of Quest cannot be called “great” or “estimable,” etc.

The second part of this sentence states that the result of Winters’s selection of the great poems is “highly personal.” Once again, I am not sure exactly what Fraser is driving at here, but if he means that Winters believed that the poems he had chosen were just his personal all-time favorites, I must wholly and strenuously disagree. Winters clearly believed that he objectively chose these poems as the greatest, as thoroughly as any critic can be objective. They were
certainly NOT in his view a mere personal selection of "best-loved" poems. He believed that the poems he judged as great and chose for Quest are great for all people at all times, not just for Yvor Winters at one period of his life (again, regardless of whether we agree or not). The idea that Winters made a “highly personal” selection for Quest is clearly antithetical to just about everything he taught and wrote about evaluating poetry. The anthology is far more than a personal choice of favorites. Winters believed, however hopelessly, that the future of literature and culture depended on critics and poets seeing how great these works are.

Finally, to consider other possibilities, Fraser’s second comment about the selection being highly personal” might refer only to Fraser’s own opinion of the picks for Quest, in which case Fraser means that the selection appears to himself as “highly personal.” Again, if this is so, he can believe as thinks best. But I don’t share this view and will remonstrate against it. Or Fraser might have meant that we as a consensus of readers and writers should now regard Winters’s selections as highly personal. I do not agree. They should NOT be so regarded. Winters demonstrated to my satisfaction that his selection of great poems was as objective as possible -- and the selection is compelling. Moreover, I agree on the choices, almost across the board.